Sara Siddiqui Chansarkar is an Indian American writer. She is the author of Morsels of Purple and Skin Over Milk, and is currently working on a novel. Her stories and essays have won several awards and have been published in numerous anthologies and journals. She is a fiction editor for SmokeLong Quarterly.
Morning at Ammi’s House
From Ammi’s rooftop terrace, in the haze before dawn, I see the faint outlines of Uttarakhand mountains, one range looking over the shoulder of another like a sibling, but my phone camera isn’t that powerful, so I capture the sight in my eyes, place it on a low shelf inside my brain, easily accessible later when I’m back in the flatlands of Ohio.
Saffron flags with “Jai Sri Ram '' inscribed in gold Hindi letters flutter atop most of the neighboring roofs. When I was growing up here in India, the three colors—saffron, white and green—used to be the symbol and pride of my country. Now, a wide brush stroke has painted almost everything monochrome, the saffron of Hinduism, the faith of the majority. It worries me how conspicuous Ammi’s Muslim house stands in the absence of a saffron marker.
Peeking down from the parapet, I see a brown dog and a black puppy bent over last night’s roti and rice left in a trough for cows by the across-the-street family. The way the dogs eat harmoniously makes me wonder whether they are family, but the color difference renders me in doubt. I’m glad the dogs claimed the leftovers before the cows because cows create a stinking mess. As soon as they dip their heads in the food, their tails rise to create space for excreting dung, dark green splatters, inches away from Ammi’s gate. The sweeper comes later in the day, so Ammi shovels the goo herself into the adjacent plot of land before it attracts flies. When I ask her why she puts up with this obscenity, she says she can’t protest because the cow is a revered animal, sacred to the Hindu neighbors.
Last year, when I visited Ammi on the occasion of Eid, the woman from across-the-street came to greet my mother on the Muslim holiday. I served the woman a bowl of sweet seviyan, the traditional festival dish, but she refused to taste it, saying she was fasting for some lunar observance. Against her hospitable nature, Ammi did not direct me to pack some sweets for the woman to have later. Instead, she asked me to bring a plate of fruits from the kitchen.The woman, after filling in Ammi with the neighborhood gossip, picked a yellow-green banana from the assortment and left the house. Later, Ammi told me the vegetarian across-the-street neighbors don’t eat anything prepared in her Muslim kitchen, fearing it would be contaminated by meat, although she would never think of offering a meat preparation to them.
That day I urged Ammi to be direct with the neighbors, voice her concern against the prejudice. She accused me of being naive, an outsider who does not understand the intricacies of the social machinery, the nuances of fitting in with the majority. In defense of the across-the-street neighbors, she rattled off a list of ways in which they helped her. The man arranged for Ammi’s sundry repairs like a leaky roof, a loose brick on the steps, or a busted refrigerator. When Ammi visited her sister in the other part of the town, the woman took a liter of milk from my mother’s milkman and kept it in their refrigerator until her return. If Ammi was unwell, the son ran errands for her like purchasing vegetables from the corner shop.
I hear a conch shell being blown in the neighborhood Hindu temple as the sun rays cleave the haze and gild the low walls. A gray pigeon lands on Ammi’s water tank, bends its iridescent neck for the trickle from the overflow pipe. Next, it flies to the across-the-street house and perches on their tank beside the flapping saffron flag. Below, I watch Ammi pick up the newspaper the paper boy has flung into the porch. I know she will flip to the section that lists the price of gold per 10 grams although my sisters and I have long been married. She doesn’t need to worry about any more necklaces, earrings, and bracelets for our wedding trousseaus.
My mother will be what she is, has always been. I cannot expect her to change at this age. Ammi won’t raise her voice against bigotry, won’t try to be a crusader. She will absorb and adjust, go through the motions of civil pleasantries with geniality, knowing she has to co-exist peacefully for what has left of her life. She won’t be a pennant slapping the winds of change; she’ll stay hemmed under the edges of the fabric, even if the color is not to her liking. And, I pray the Uttarakhand mountains will watch over her.